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What Makes Faith Mature

by Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, a former assistant editor at the Century, is associate editor for Group Books and author of Youth Ministry in City Churches. This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 9, 1990, pp.496-499, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Visit any mainline Sunday school class and you will probably find only a smattering of adults and high school students. The students will seem bored and uninvolved, the teacher burned out and ill-equipped. Then follow some church members through the week. Few will show any signs that they are Christians. They won’t read their Bibles or pray. They won’t work in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. They won’t participate in rallies to fight injustice or discrimination. People in mainline churches live lives unaffected by their faith. And part of the problem is that churches are not doing what it takes to make faith Mature.

That’s the alarming conclusion of a major new study of mainline congregations titled Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations. Conducted by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and funded by the Lilly Endowment, the study surveyed 11,122 people in 561 congregations in six denominations: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ; Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ; Southern Baptist Convention; United Church of Christ; and United Methodist Church. Originally the study included only traditional mainline groups, but the participating denominations agreed to add the Southern Baptists to the study because of that denomination’s thorough educational programs. The three-and-a-half-year study found that "effective Christian education is the most powerful single influence congregations have on maturity of faith." Researchers also claim that Christian education has the potential to renew Congregational life and reverse downward membership trends. Yet, the summary report continues, "Many of the factors needed for effectiveness in Christian education are not currently operating in large numbers of congregations."

The research team faced a formidable question in undertaking the study: How does one measure Christian education’s impact? How do you quantify the growth of faith and program effectiveness? Presenting the research findings at a conference in late March, project director and Search president Peter L. Benson explained that the study posited that "the primary aim of congregational life, is to nurture a vibrant, life-changing faith." Then the researchers made two key assumptions. First, faith is a way of living, not just an adherence to doctrine and dogma. Second, faith is life-transforming and has a dramatic, lasting impact on the believer. With this framework, the research team, together with theologians and denominational leaders, developed a 38 question survey focusing on two themes, summed up in the report as follows: "A person of mature faith experiences both a life-transforming relationship to a loving God -- the vertical theme -- and a consistent devotion to others -- the’ horizontal theme." High scores in both dimensions indicated an "integrated" or "mature" faith. Low scores in both dimensions indicated an "undeveloped" faith.

The findings are anything but encouraging. "Only a minority of Protestant adults evidence the kind of ‘integrated, vibrant, and life-encompassing faith congregations seek to develop," the study reports. "For most adults, faith is underdeveloped, lacking some of the key elements necessary for faith’ maturity." Specifically, 36 percent of adults have an undeveloped faith and only 32 percent have an integrated faith. Ten percent have a vertical faith (high in the vertical dimension only) and 22 percent have a horizontal faith (high in the horizontal dimension only) At every age, women have a more developed faith than men. And half the men in their 40s have an undeveloped faith.

Three areas pose particular problems to adults in developing faith. Many adults don’t experience a sense of well-being, security or peace in their faith. They have trouble seeking spiritual growth through study, reflection, prayer and discussion with others. And they do little to serve others through acts of love and justice. For example, 78 percent of adults never spend time promoting social justice. Seventy-two percent have never marched, met or gathered with others to promote social change. Sixty-six percent never or rarely encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ. And the same percentage don’t read their Bibles when alone. Moreover, adults have little interest in learning about people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds or in peacemaking and social-justice activities.

Thus, most church members have been unmoved by the mainline denominations’ heavy emphasis on peace and justice issues. In fact, instead of drawing people toward these concerns, the emphasis may have actually turned people away from them. "If the word ‘political’ is in the [survey] item, the average Protestant will react negatively," said David S. Schuller, a project consultant from the Association of Theological Schools: This finding confirms suspicions, but it also raises questions. How can denominations and congregations find ways to get people interested and involved in service and social issues? Researchers suggest making service and social justice integral to Christian education. "Some of the best religious education occurs in these moments of giving, of connection, of bonding to others," the report notes. "Service needs to be a cornerstone of educational programming, partly because it is educationally rich, and ultimately because, as people of faith, we are called to serve.

The study also uncovered significant problems among teenagers’ faith development. Sixty-four percent of mainline teenagers have an undeveloped faith. More alarming, the percentage skyrockets for teenage boys after eighth grade. While 66 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade boys have an undeveloped faith, 83 percent of ninth- and tenth-grade boys do. Such a decline may be partly attributable to natural intellectual and spiritual development as young adolescents ask questions and struggle with who they are. Yet two denominations -- the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- do not experience this decline. A significant reason for the decline in the other four denominations may be the confirmation process. By the end of the eighth grade, young people have "graduated" from confirmation and there is little to keep them coming back and growing in faith after that.

How do congregations address these problems? Researchers discovered several key factors that, when present, promote faith.

Most important is family religiousness. The greatest impact on a person’s faith occurs when families participate in devotions together, parents talk about their faith to their children, and the family does service projects together.

In examining congregational factors that promote faith growth and maturity, Christian education is the most vital factor. Nothing matters more than Christian education," Benson claimed. "Done well, has the potential -- more than any other area of congregational life -- to promote faith and loyalty." In fact, Christian education has twice the impact that other factors have in congregational life. "The more a congregation embodies the Christian education effectiveness factors," the report claims, "the greater the growth in faith by youth and adults, and the greater the loyalty to congregation and denomination."

Researchers visited 52 congregations that do a good job of promoting. faith maturity -- in which Christian education is the center of congregational life, influencing the church’s worship and outreach. "The whole program of the church is Christian education . . . [and] the vision of Christian education was a holistic one," recalled José Abraham de Jesus, UCC area conference minister for the Chicago Metropolitan Association, Illinois Conference.

Among the factors that create an effective Christian education program, according to the study:

• Teachers who have mature faith and who know educational theories and methods.

• A pastor who is committed to education, devotes time to Christian education and knows educational theory and practice.

•An educational process that applies faith to current issues, examines life experiences, creates community, recognizes individuality and encourages independent thinking and questioning.

• Educational content that "blends biblical knowledge and insight with significant engagement in the major life issues each age group faces." Effective adult education emphasizes biblical knowledge, multicultural and global awareness, and moral decision-making. Emphases for youth include sexuality, drugs and alcohol, service and friendship.

• A high percentage of adults active in a congregation.

• An education program with a clear mission statement and clear learning objectives.

Yet congregations rarely exploit their potential in these areas. The average church embodies only 35 to 40 percent of the effectiveness factors. Areas in which churches rank highest include biblical knowledge, encouragement of questions, pastoral commitment and pastoral expertise. They are weakest in such areas as social, political and cultural concerns, programs that build community, and peer involvement.

Benson believes part of the problem is myths about Christian education. First, people think of Christian education as a ministry for children. This belief is reflected in the downward spiral of involvement. While 60 percent of elementary-age children participate in Christian education, the percentage drops to 52 percent for junior-high youth, 35 percent for senior-high youth and 28 percent for adults.

The second myth is that good teaching involves transferring information. "The effective program," the report argues, "not only teaches in the classical sense of transmitting insight and knowledge, but also allows insight to emerge from the crucible of experience." Third, churches seem to believe that teaching doesn’t require training. Only half the congregations offer training in effective teaching methods each year. And only 21 percent give training in denominational theology and tradition. The final myth is that Christian education is separate from the rest or congregational life -- not the center of energy for everything else the congregation does.

The report concludes:

Christian education in a majority of congregations is a tired enterprise in need of reform. Often out-of-touch with adult and adolescent needs, it experiences increasing difficulty in finding and motivating volunteers, faces general disinterest among its "clients," and employs models and procedures that have changed little over time. . .

The good news is that most of the factors making for effectiveness in education are within the control of congregations. With the right support, commitment and energy, effectiveness can be greatly enhanced.

In addition to measuring faith maturity, the, study attempted to measure congregational and denominational loyalty. In general the study found that adults are solidly committed to both institutions. Sixty-five percent of mainline adults have a high denominational loyalty, and’ 76 percent have a high congregational loyalty. The study also found that congregational loyalty can predict other factors in congregational health. Congregations with a loyal membership tend to grow, members tend to give, and there is more congregational activity. However, loyalty is much "softer" among young and middle-age adults. In terms of denominational loyalty, 78 percent of those 60 and older have high loyalty. But the percentage drops to about 58 percent for those younger than 60.

A similar pattern holds for congregational loyalty. While 85 percent of those 60 and older have high loyalty, the percentage falls to 73 percent for those between 40 and 59, and to 69 percent for those between 20 and 39. While loyalty may naturally increase with age, it may also reflect a shift in how people view church. "It is probably prudent to assume that loyalty is softening," the report suggests. The study also found that the same factors that promote faith growth appear to increase denominational and congregational loyalty. Thus, said Benson, "if we do good work in promoting faith maturity, we get the by-product of loyalty. We don’t have to choose between the two.

Denominational differences were the topic of considerable discussion at the conference. These differences were generally insignificant among mainline denominations, but researchers were surprised by the relative strength revealed by the Southern Baptist statistics. For example, while the percentage of adults with undeveloped faith in mainline denominations ranged between 33 percent (UMC) and 47 percent (ELCA) , it drops to 23 percent among Southern Baptists. The SBC figures may not be that telling Southern Baptists had the lowest participation rate of any denomination in the study, making its data less reliable than those from the other denominations. But researchers believe the differences are at least suggestive. The SBC churches scored higher in congregational strengths that enhance faith maturity. For example, they scored highest in climate for thinking, warmth, worship quality, Christian education involvement and caring. And they scored almost as high as mainline denominations in service. The reports adds, however, that "this project says more about common realities facing denominations than differences. . . . Each of the six denominations has great but untapped potential to increase its impact on faith maturity and loyalty."

The study’s faith-maturity scale was object of some criticism. Critics worried that the structure didn’t leave a place for doubts and questions based on faith-development models. As a result, the study may have simply looked for traditional faith expressions. Yet the study didn’t attempt to measure "right belief." Rather, it focused on how individuals act on their faith. In fact, Benson said, people with integrated faith generally were nonconformists and nontraditionalists. He said they had ups and downs in faith, were social critics, were highly interested in inclusivity and were relatively unorthodox in their view of faith and the world.

Another question raised was whether the study included adequate representation of racial and ethnic minority groups. "The ethnic and racial constituencies are not well-represented" in the survey data, said Delores Carpenter, associate professor of religious education at Howard University Divinity School. Such a concern is valid, but it’s also part of a larger concern for the denominations, While only 3 percent of those surveyed were from racial and ethnic minority groups, that figure reflects the realities in the denominations. And the researchers sought to overcome this deficiency by including a large number of racial and ethnic congregations in the site visits to effective congregations. Despite these and other objections, the study’s basic structure has been widely accepted -- and not just by the participating denominations. Search is already using its research instrument in a survey being conducted for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Will the study have a significant impact on the church? A previous major Search Institute study, Young Adolescents and Their Parents, did little to reshape denominations’ youth and family programs because denominations did little to act on the information. However, this study not only points to specific problems but identifies key areas that, when addressed, will begin correcting the problems.

David Ng, professor of Christian education at San Francisco Theological Seminary, said the study gives Christian educators "the tool we can use to gain the attention of the rest of the church. . . . It may be most valuable in that it forces us to sharpen our definitions of the educational task." But, he added, "for all the potential we see in this to be a catalyst for change. . . the project is not a quick fix.

. . . [It] is an opening wedge." Charles Foster, director of the Christian education program at Candler School of Theology, noted that "the significance of this study will come when it’s put in dialogue with other major studies," such as studies in mainline decline, education and faith development.

Many people fear, however, that the study’s impact will be lost in the debate over details. "The major impact of the findings may not inform what’s going on in our seminaries adequately," Schuller worried. Some academicians may dismiss the study because they’re concerned that faith can’t be measured. He challenged his colleagues to maintain a balance between questioning the study methods and acknowledging what the study did find.

Denominations also need to look realistically at their situations and test their results against their experience. Robert Glover, executive for Christian education for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) , asked, "Can we share this new knowledge with all the other things we have to do?" Nearly everything denominations do is important td somebody, he noted. Yet revolutionizing Christian education could well be the key’ to reversing downward trends in mainline denominations. "It is my conviction," Benson said, "that what we decide to do this decade will have a great deal to say . . . about the health and vitality of our churches in the coming century."

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CHART #1

Promoting Faith (1st chart from the middle of this article)

The Search Institute study found six factors that, -when present in congregations, increase faith maturity and congregational loyalty. The first factor, formal Christian education, has twice the impact of the other five.

1. The congregation has an effective formal Christian education program, including Sunday school classes, Bible studies, adult forums, family events, music and drama programs and new member classes.

2. Members perceive that their congregation encourages questions, challenges thinking and expects learning.

3. The congregation successfully recruits members to volunteer to help people in need.

4. Members perceive that their Sunday worship is of high quality.

5. Members see their congregation as warm and friendly.

6. Members personally experience other members’ care and concern.

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CHART #2

The Nature of Mature Faith

On the basis of consultations with scholars, reviews of the literature and surveys of adults, the Search Institute researchers designed a research tool around the following eight dimensions of "mature faith." They suggest that a person with mature faith:

1. Trusts in God’s saving grace and believes firmly in the humanity and divinity of Jesus.

2: Experiences a sense of personal well-being, security and peace.

3. Integrates faith and life, and sees work, family, social relationships and political choices as part of religious life.

4. Seeks spiritual growth through study, reflection, prayer and discussion with others.

5. Seeks to be part of a community of Believers in which people witness to their faith and support and nourish one another.

6. Holds life-affirming values, including a commitment to racial and gender equality, an affirmation of cultural and religious diversity and a personal sense of responsibility for the welfare of others.

7. Advocates social and global change to bring about greater social justice.

8. Serves humanity consistently and passionately through acts of love and justice.

From Peter Benson and Carolyn H. Eklin, Effective Christian Education. A National

Study of Protestant Congregations -- A Summary Report on Faith, Loyalty, and CongregationalLife (1990) Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute. Reprinted by permission.

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